Hundreds attend ceremony at Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial

ATASCADERO — On Monday morning hundreds of local residents, elected officials and veterans from all around the region provided a standing ovation for Leroy Dodge, a local veteran who was instrumental in the founding of the Atascadero Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial foundation and the construction of the monument itself. 

Overcome with emotion, Dodge attempted to give credit for the memorial to other foundation members present at a Veterans Day ceremony at the Faces of Freedom Memorial but he had trouble forming the words through his tears. 

“The people who built this did one whale of a marvelous job,” he said. 

Former Atascadero Mayor and another Faces of Freedom Founder, Tom O’Malley presented Dodge with a framed photo of the Faces of Freedom memorial during the ceremony and honored Dodge as the Distinguished Veteran of the Year.

A native of Fargo, North Dakota, Dodge moved with his family to Atascadero and graduated from Atascadero High School in 1945 via an early enlistment in the U.S. Navy. After graduating from boot camp and radio school Dodge was assigned to a Patrol Craft Escort as a radioman, 3rd class, and was off to fight on the Pacific front in WWII. 

Dodge married his high school sweetheart and neighbor Peggy Simpson in March of 1947 and they had four sons together while living in Atascadero between 1947 and 1951. Peggy and Leroy celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary this year and all four of their sons — Fred, Dave, Bill and Rick — were able to attend the ceremony on Monday to see their father honored. 

Templeton Native and Honor Flight Central Coast of California founder Greg McGill served as the event’s keynote speaker. McGill said that he agreed to speak at the event out of his desire to honor “the folks who erected this memorial and maintain it and most importantly our veterans all around the world.” 

“Our veterans have been defending this country since before our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence,” McGill said during his speech. “Since that time we have lived in a free land. We lay our heads down at night without fear of persecution, knowing that we can wake up the next day and practice whatever religion we want or be  part of whichever religion we want or be a part of whichever political party we choose… These individuals are the backbone of the United States of America and the same people who formed the strongest military in the world. These men and women are the best people American has to offer.” 

McGill became acquainted with the Honor Flgiht program while serving as a firefighter in Kern County. He chaperoned a flight of 22 veterans to Washington D.C. to tour the nation’s capital and see the many veterans’ memorials in the city. After returning he began reaching out to veterans on the Central Coast and took 13 local veterans to Washington, D.C. in 2013, eventually founding the local branch of the nationwide nonprofit organization and has since transported more than 300 local veterans to the capital.

A handful of local veterans were chosen to be honored by receiving a patriotic quilt from the Quilts of Valor organization. The organization’s patriotic quilters have made more than 233,000 quilts for veterans across the nation and the local guilde will have made 300 quilts for local veterans by the end of the year. 

“Each quilt is made with love, prayer and healing thoughts,” said event emcee Dick Mason. 

The ceremony also featured the presentation of colors by Grizzly Academy 3rd Platoon Cadets and Central Coast Pipes and Drums, musical performances by the Atascadero Fine Arts Academy Choir and the SLO County Trumpet Alliance and a wreath presentation by local veteran Richard Hathcock. 

If you would like to volunteer or financially support the upcoming 2020 Veterans Day ceremony, call Cheryl Hertan at 805-235-8567.

Getting through this together, Atascadero